‘Gettysburg’ and Retrospection

My family is not big on pageantry on the Fourth of July. It’s been years since I even watched fireworks on America’s birthday. We don’t fly an American flag in our front yard, we don’t make apple pie, we don’t attend a church picnic.

The closest we get to Independence Day patriotism is golfing (and that’s an English sport, right?) and watching a Mets game maybe.

But every year, one member of the family (admittedly one of the males) suggests we watch the 1993 war movie Gettysburg. And the rest of us (even my mom…at least at first) eagerly agree.

Now, you have to understand something about me: I used to be an insufferable Civil War junkie. “Junkie” probably isn’t quite the right word. I was the guy who wrote every paper in junior high English on the Civil War. I was the guy who scored in the B-range in every subject, but when tested on the Civil War, I usually earned something better than 100-percent (junior high teachers and bonus questions being what they are).

There was a time I was convinced I would be a battlefield tour guide for a living, reenacting in my spare time. I’m serious, I was convinced. So thorough was my desire to be a Civil War nerd for a living that I was slightly devastated when someone knew Civil War trivia I didn’t…or at least came up with the answer more quickly.

I memorized the classifications down to brigade commanders. I knew each Army of the Potomac commander in succession (including the brief appearance of Alexander Pope in the middle of 1862—most people trip up on that one). I could diagram each Eastern Theater battle for you on a napkin.

But Gettysburg was my jam, man. And the movie even more so: I’m sure I can recite each line along with the actors for the entire four-hour (plus, in the director’s cut) duration of the film. Seriously.

So I like Gettysburg. Check that—I liked Gettysburg. I no longer watch the film several times a month. I no longer remember exactly what motivated Col. Chamberlain of the 20th Maine to deploy an entire company to the extreme left of his regiment’s line during the fight on Little Round Top. My beloved Civil War books have gradually been supplanted by novels, theological works, and fiction anthologies.

But there’s something unique about being a part of something you once loved fanatically years after you’ve stopped caring about it quite so passionately. I’ve felt that way about lots of things, and I imagine I will feel similarly more often as I get older.

There’s something compelling about the Civil War, to be sure: it’s the only war to be fought only by Americans. There were no other major players. We still see the residue of the war, 150 years later, in Southern nostalgia and large-scale reenactments. It’s the great American epic, our Iliad.

But for me, there’s something deeper than that. When I hold my tattered, rubber band-bound copy of Jeff Shaara’s novel Gods and Generals,  it’s not merely representative of a compelling work of war fiction. It’s representative of the obsession of my 12-year-old self. And that’s worth something.

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